Fatigue is by far the most common complaint I hear from my clients and friends. We’re all so tired. Perhaps it’s related to our 24 hour on-the-go lifestyles and/or poor sleep habits. But it’s not always that black and white.
We may assume it’s adrenal fatigue (a bit of a misnomer and a term that bugs me) or hormone imbalance. But few of us consider that the reason for our fatigue may be the tiny organelles inside our cells: Our mitochondria. I’ve written before why mitochondrial dysfunction is a (if not the) major cause of fatigue. You can read about that here.
But the longer I’d been doing this work, the more I began to notice that most everyone with fatigue also had digestive issues. That really got me thinking (and also influenced a shift in my practice where I now focus predominantly on digestive issues because everyone has them!): What if there’s more to the story than just “cellular fatigue” from conked out mitochondria? Could digestion influence fatigue?
The Surprising Reason Why We’re All So Tired
First off, you probably remember from high school biology that your mitochondria are the little powerhouses inside your cells. Mitochondria generate 90 percent of cellular energy and are involved in major metabolic functions of the human body. Think of your cells as little cars driving around your body. The mitochondria are the engines, and they require supreme fuel to power the cell efficiently. Doritos a’int gonna cut it. Your mitochondria need a steady supply of CoQ10, B vitamins, L-carnitine, and various minerals (like magnesium) to functional optimally. Interestingly, meat is the best source for these nutrients (with the exception of magnesium).
The mitochondria take in these nutrients, break them down, and create energy-rich molecules for the cell, a process called cellular respiration (kind of like the exhaust that comes out of the car when the engine is burning). You need plenty of antioxidants (best source is brightly colored fruits and veggies) to offset the free radicals that are produced as a result of cellular respiration.
Certain cells (like heart cells, for example,) may have up to 5,000 mitochondria per cell. Heart disease and many other degenerative diseases are linked to mitochondrial dysfunction. (source) It’s no surprise that people with congestive heart failure are often very deficient in CoQ10, an enzyme that declines as we age. Your heart muscle needs a good amount of CoQ10 to function optimally. Makes sense because the heart houses so many mitochondria!
Our cells need a diverse diet that provides the nutrients needed by mitochondria to work efficiently. If you’re not getting sufficient nutrients, your mitochondria begin to wither. Consider this: Fatigue is actually your body’s way of trying to protect you. If you’re chronically exhausted, your mitochondria can’t power your cells (and therefore your body) effectively, so they “down shift” to protect cell from threats instead of producing energy.
Fatigue is the most common symptom of poorly functioning mitochondria, and every body system is impacted. A few things aside from nutrient deficiencies that damage the mitochondria are as follows:
- toxins, chemicals, pollutants
- poor sleep
- certain drugs, painkillers (even OTC)
- empty calories
You know the major factor in viruses, systemic inflammation, and inability to metabolize nutrients? Your gut. That’s right: The health of your gut directly impacts your mitochondrial function and could be a major player in fatigue.
First off, if you have leaky gut, you’re not properly breaking down and absorbing nutrients from your food, and that sets you up for deficiencies, even if you’re eating a great diet. But if you’re not eating a whole foods diet to begin with, you’ll have it even worse. Secondly, leaky gut causes inflammation and increases toxins in your system (lipopolysaccharides) that contribute to cellular damage and cause the cell to turn on its danger response, down regulating mitochondria and making your feel tired as a result.
Here are Five Ways Digestive Issues Tank Your Energy:
- Inability to break down nutrients completely leads to toxic compounds produced by fermentation in the gut. These compounds are toxic to your mitochondria. For example, if you’re not producing enough stomach acid or enzymes to break down your food, undigested food particles are fermented by your gut bacteria, producing the toxic compounds.
- Leaky gut originates in the small intestine. When the small intestine is inflamed or otherwise compromised, you’re not able to effectively assimilate food and absorb nutrients. That’s a main cause of deficiencies.
- Leaky gut causes undigested food proteins to leaky into your bloodstream which stresses your immune system.
- Dysbiosis (bad bacteria) damages the villi in the small intestine, slows gut motility, food stays in the gut, longer, and more fermentation and toxic compounds are produced.
- If you’re constipated, toxins that are bound up in stool aren’t released as they should be and are reabsorbed back into your system. These toxins damage your mitochondria.
So the takeaway here is that poor diet (sugar, inflammatory foods, booze) damages the gut and causes dybiosis which leads to or worsens leaky gut which increases endotoxins (that just means toxins inside your body) which negatively affect your mitochondria and cause them to turn on their cell danger response. An unhealthy microbiome = unhealthy mitochondria. So your microbiome influences your mitochondria and therefore your energy levels.
There’s a lot you can do to improve the health of your mitochondria. But you’ll also want to address leaky gut and support your microbiome to ensure you’re absorbing max nutrients to fuel your cells. Gut health is key in fixing your mitochondria.
Here’s an action plan:
- Consider stool testing before you embark on any gut healing program so you know exactly what you need to work on. I use the GI MAP test because it screens for parasites, pathogens, and yeast and also includes GI health markers to let you know about inflammation and beneficial bacteria levels. You can order this test yourself here.
- Once you know exactly what’s up under the hood, start by addressing any gut imbalances: parasites, h pylori, yeast, SIBO, dysbiosis. Whatever is going on in your gut, there’s a protocol to address it (and you can find most, if not all, here on my site). You can also just do a basic gut reset if you can’t order the test.
- After you’ve killed any bad guys, work on healing leaky gut. You’ll want to be eating an anti-inflammatory diet and identify any potential food triggers (foods that don’t work for you). You can use an elimination diet to determine food triggers. Healing and resealing the gut takes anywhere from 3 months to a year. Then you’ll be absorbing much better.
- Make sure you’re taking a digestive enzyme and a probiotic.
- Intermittent fasting may boost mitochondrial function.
As mentioned, focus on an anti-inflammatory diet and ditch the junk. Sugar, booze, white flour, and processed foods damage your gut and your mitochondria. The key foods that include optimal amounts of B vitamins, amino acids, CoQ10, and minerals needed by your mitochondria include grass fed beef, liver, lamb, nutritional yeast, eggs, oysters, spinach, avocado, nuts (esp almonds), and cruciferous veggies. Include as many veggies as you can tolerate because the polyphenols and phytochemicals in plant foods help modulate your gut bacteria and act as prebiotics to nourish the microbiome.
Also make sure to up your omega-3 fat intake to help build your mitochondrial membranes. That means wild salmon, sardines, leafy greens, chia, walnuts. Or consider a fish oil.
Special shoutout to a key mitochondrial superfood: Pomegranates. Studies are showing that a molecule in pomegranates, transformed by microbes in the gut (which is why you need to nourish your microbiome!!), enables muscle cells to protect themselves against aging. (source) Pomegranates also may aid in repairing and rebuilding mitochondria.
But don’t mainline the juice. It’s high in sugar. Try the seeds over coconut yogurt for a snack, or add 1/4 cup of the juice to smoothies.
Lots more about how to nourish your mitochondria and supplements to help in this post.
Mary Vance is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and author specializing in digestive health. She combines a science-based approach with natural therapies to rebalance the body. In addition to her 1:1 coaching, she offers courses to help you heal your gut and improve your health. Mary lives in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Read more about her coaching practice here and her background here.